-o0o-

"Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune-without the words,
And never stops at all,"

-Emily Dickinson

-o0o-

Ron was content; Hermione practically glowed. Even the swollen fingers and ankles, and the enforced reduction in activities wasn't enough to dim the joy that radiated from her. He knew she still fretted, and he knew that every scan was fraught with fear and laced with tension, but they were nearing delivery now and had every reason to be optimistic. The pregnancy had continued as normally as possible. Hermione grew wider and rounder, and her illness subsided. Her energy returned and the reassurance of the baby's kicks and jabs were amusing to everyone to witness, as her entire belly regularly moved with the actions of the child within. The calls to Penny became less frantic, though there were still two or three scares when Hermione felt the baby was moving less frequently or just had that impending sense that something might be wrong.

She never felt wholly convinced that there wouldn't be some sort of horror or tragedy, but resolved in as much as possible to simply enjoy the remainder of her pregnancy and the time with her baby. The likelihood that she would ever be pregnant again was slim, and for that reason alone she wanted to do her best to embrace the experience, to hold to the hope of good things to come. Even so, she procrastinated on several baby-related fronts, to Molly's horror and general confusion given her well-known planning nature. There was still no name selected, no nursery prepared, only a handful of nappies, blankets and clothes as Hermione entered the end of her pregnancy. She had steadfastly refused any showers or parties, saying she'd rather wait until the baby was born and they knew for certain what they needed. In reality, Hermione could not stand the thought of one more item being purchased and sitting in a room that may never be used for the child that was curled within her. Ron backed her up, shrugging off her behaviour and defending it to the more persistent among his family. However, by Hermione's thirty-ninth week of pregnancy, Ron was insistent that the nursery be prepared.

Given that the baby should arrive within the next three weeks, Hermione had finally acknowledged Ron's wisdom and allowed him to get to work organizing the third bedroom conversion to nursery. She didn't watch; that was too difficult for her even now. But she had consulted with him on colours (they'd settled on a soft green to go with the white furniture), and told him where she wanted him to set up the cot and the rocking chair. While Ron put everything in order, hanging the framed prints of Babbity Rabbity and some Muggle rabbit that Hermione called Peter Cottontail, Hermione rubbed her aching back and rearranged herself on the couch.

She'd woken feeling a bit off, and was finding herself increasingly uncomfortable as the day wore on. It was irritating to feel so uncomfortable, but Hermione tried to focus on the shifting baby thumping merrily away at her rib cage. "Hey little one, no need to practise your footballer skills on me, you know. Plenty of time for that later on," she crooned to her belly, half-smiling despite her discomfort.

"Football? It's utterly boring, darling. You know she'll be on a broomstick by the time she's three anyway, best to accept her Quidditch destiny now, love," Ron teased as he kissed her forehead in passing.

"Are you done so quickly?" Hermione asked in surprise.

"Merlin's bollocks, Hermione! I am a wizard of no mean skill when I want to be," Ron called from the kitchen. "You already folded all the nappies and clothes and things, I just had to levitate them. The frames only needed a sticking charm and George helped me piece all that furniture together yesterday while you were at Penny and Percy's."

"Oh," said Hermione, a bit stupidly, "of course that wouldn't take long. Thanks for handling it all."

"Happy to, love," he replied. "Can I get you anything while I'm in here? You didn't eat much at lunch, y'know."

"Just something to drink, please. I'm just not hungry," she replied. The discomfort she'd been feeling was leaving her restless and a bit anxious.

"There you are, Hermione," Ron said, handing her a glass filled with pumpkin juice. "How're you feeling?"

"I simply cannot get comfortable," she said. "Of course, Penny warned me the last bit was probably the hardest physically, but my back is just aching."

"You want a pain potion?" he suggested, a frown marring his face, as Hermione shifted again, trying to rearrange the pillows that were propping her ungainly body into a sitting position.

"You know I can't have one, Ron," she said sharply, before sighing. "I'm sorry, Ron, it was rude of me to snap at you. I think I'm just feeling fretful. You've been really attentive, I appreciate it."

Ron leaned down to kiss her forehead again, and lovingly brush her hair out of her eyes. "You're my wife, sweets, it's my job to try to keep you comfortable and happy. Are you sure you don't mind me going out tonight?"

In truth, Hermione had been in favour of the plan initially; the Auror division were rotating through night raids at present, following up on promising leads about the new rumours of dark rituals and secret gatherings. If Ron got his share out of the way early, it would keep him free to stick to paperwork after next week, and Penelope had said it didn't look like the baby was showing signs of coming earlier than her due date. Now, however, she was regretting her rash agreement, even if this were to be the final night. Afraid of appearing even more petulant, she forced a smile.

"Of course not. I'll have you all to myself after tonight, so it's better you go and get this finished. It's not as though I can't care for myself for a single night, after all," she said stoutly.

Her husband looked carefully at her, with that intense probing gaze he used most often during a chess match, and she knew that he had seen through her ploy. Grunting non-commitally, he said in a soft, persuasive voice, "Course you can care for yourself, but I think I'll feel better if someone stays with you anyhow. I know how tiresome it is for you to have to get up from the couch anytime you want something."

"I can summon what I want, Ron," she chided.

"But you never do, Hermione," he responded. "Really, I can see if Mum or Fleur could come over."

"Oh, no," Hermione said hastily. "No, your mum insists that I eat more than I could possibly stand and badgers me about whether baby is a girl or boy and Fleur is lovely, but she will go on and on about her labours and births of Dominique and Victoire, and I don't feel up to either of them."

"Well, Ginny's got the babies, and Penny's working and you know how Percy feels about disrupting Molly's schedule," Ron said with a roll of his eyes. "George could probably come over if he and Luna don't have plans."

"I don't mind George, but I hate to disturb him. You can ask, but really, Ron, I'll be fine on my own," Hermione said in resignation and some relief. "Please tell him I'll be fine on my own and he is under no obligation to come, especially if he's got plans with Luna!" she called to her husband's retreating back.

Not five minutes later, a beaming George was dusting soot from the floo off his work robes and kissing Hermione on the cheek while Ron went to get dressed for his night's work.

"Hullo, Hermione, you look radiant as ever," he said cheerfully, "and how is my little Mathilda doing in there today?" George teased her with names every single time he saw her, and she dreaded a bit what he would finally select.

"Mathilda's not half as bad as some of the others, but I don't love it," Hermione said.

George gasped theatrically. "Don't you let my favourite niece hear such things! I'm sure you'll love Annelise to bits once she's here, Hermione, don't worry."

"You are too much George. Ron did tell you that I can stay on my own, didn't he? You know I was just fine last week both nights he was gone. Don't feel you have to stay if you had plans," she said, again shifting to try find a position that might relieve the pressure in her back, which just seemed to get worse as the day progressed.

"Yes, but he also told me you aren't feeling well. Luna will bring over some supper in a bit, if you don't mind some extra company, and some proper night clothes for me and we'll just make certain you don't need to be troubled for anything."

"I don't want to be an imposition," Hermione murmured.

"It's no imposition on us, Hermione, and I intend to impose on you by having obnoxiously loud sex in your guest room, just to annoy you," George said with as innocent a grin as he could manage.

"Delightful," she said drily, as Ron joined them, decked out in his official robes, rucksack loosely slung over his shoulder.

"Thanks for coming George. I know you'll be fine, Hermione, but I'll focus better knowing you are safe, yeah? Tell that little one to behave, and I'll see you tomorrow morning. You know how to contact me if you need to do." Ron squeezed her hand lovingly in his and then was gone.

Hermione shifted again, feeling a wave of pressure ripple through her back, wincing slightly. George noticed and lifted an eyebrow in question, and she tried to smile, though it looked more like a grimace.

"I've been sitting too long, is all. Can you help me up? Walking for a bit will help loosen up my back," she explained. George stood and extended his hands and with a grunt of effort, Hermione lumbered to her feet, only to feel a pain surround her entire abdomen as her uterus tightened. She frowned and rested her hand along her protruding belly.

"You all right there, Granger?" George asked, with some concern.

"Yes, yes, I'm fine. Just a cramp, nothing terrible. I'm just going to go to the loo, if you'll excuse me," she said, waddling down the hall.

-o0o-

Hermione was grateful for Luna's presence, because the dreamy, calm witch seemed to soothe the tension that had arisen between Hermione and George. She was feeling worse than she had earlier, the walk around the cottage had not loosened her back and the cramping and tightening continued to wear at her. George hovered and seemed concerned, asking until Hermione had snapped at him whether or not he should consult Penny. Luna's serenity was settling to her, and she even ate more of the nourishing supper of chicken and creamed peas, and a fresh apricot pie, than she'd quite felt up to earlier.

George watched her uncertainly as the evening wore on, and Hermione felt tired and edgy at the same time, unable to settle into any particular activity with any equanimity. Eventually, Luna offered, in her dreamy voice, to read to her, and Hermione accepted her offer, trying situate her ungainly bulk so that her back was as cushioned as possible. Luna selected one of Hermione's favourite muggle books and she closed her eyes as the melodious rhythm flowed over her. The aching subsided some, and for the first time since Ron left, she seemed relaxed. Twenty minutes passed before George noticed that Hermione had fallen asleep. Gently, he alerted Luna, who stopped reading, and helped George levitate Hermione to her bedroom. They lowered her to the bed, and George softly covered her with the afghan that rested at the foot of the bed.

"She seems to be worn out, poor girl," he whispered to Luna. "I think she's bothered more by Ron being gone than she'd care to admit."

"Well, it is rather dangerous, what they're doing, isn't it? It can't really be comfortable to be in labour and thinking that your baby's father may be in danger, though from what I can tell labour isn't terribly comfortable anyhow," Luna said replied placidly.

George looked startled. "What do you mean in labour?" His voice was urgent.

Luna blinked in surprise. "I thought it was rather obvious. She's been wincing in contractions all evening."

"Don't we need to get to St. Mungo's then?" he asked a little wildly.

"Goodness, I shouldn't think so. These things can take hours, you know George. She'll tell us when she's ready to go, if she's even planning to deliver there. Most witches don't you know, and I'm sure Penelope wouldn't mind coming out here. If she can get some sleep now, it's probably best. Come on, we'll just let her rest, and find other ways to entertain ourselves, shall we?" Luna gave him a mischievous look and glided towards the guest bedroom. George stood outside Hermione's door for a moment, torn between wanting to wake her and ask if she were in labour and following Luna. Eventually Luna won out, if only because he remembered the entire Weasley clan sleeping in the waiting room at St. Mungo's during Fleur's thirty hour labor with Dominique, and how they'd all wished they'd been called a bit later in the event.

Still, he was certain to leave the doors open so that he could hear more easily should Hermione require anything. Just to be safe.

-o0o-

Hermione's sleep was fitful and disturbed by dreams of crashing waves, pulling painfully at her, trying to pull her back to the sea, but she could see Ron up ahead on the shore waving to her, and she kept trying desperately to swim to him. A particularly large wave washed over her, tugging her back and sinking her under the water for a moment, and after a few seconds of holding her breath, Hermione awoke, startled into gasping for air. At that moment of confusion, caught between sleeping and awareness, she grumbled to herself that everything felt so wet. As she grew more conscious of her surroundings, she realized that she was indeed wet, and lying in a puddle of wetness. Her amniotic sac must have ruptured during her dreams of the sea, and as her uterus tightened painfully, Hermione knew she couldn't deny what she'd been ignoring all evening; she was in fact in labour.

And Ron was not easily reachable, active in the field. Of course she could contact him, but it wasn't easy and even making contact could be dangerous, if he were in a delicate situation. Hermione pushed herself upright once the contraction had passed, grimacing at the soaked clothes and cold dampness of the clothes that clung to her. One hand holding her bulging stomach, she waddled down the hall to the guest room. George and Luna were sprawled in the bed, fast asleep. She hated to wake them, but there was no choice, so she tried gently to shake George's shoulder.

"George? Georgie? Please, wake up," she said, her voice coming out a bit higher and more anxious than she would quite have liked. She shook his shoulder harder. "George! Please, I need you to wake up!"

Groggily, he blinked up at her, and once he realized who was trying to rouse him, seemed to snap to alertness quickly. "What's wrong, Hermione? Do you need something?"

"George, my water's broken, I think I'm labour," she said, as another contraction began it's stranglehold on her lower body. She braced herself against the bed, crying out softly, trying to breathe deeply through the building pressure, releasing a sigh when it began to wane. "That was sooner than I expected another one. We really need to get call Penny, George."

"Right, of course, yes. Let me wake up Luna? Are we going to St. Mungo's or what?" he asked, swinging his legs around, looking pale in the dim light as he began searching for his trousers.

"No, we'd planned to deliver here if all is well. Penelope will come out here, if you'll floo. I'm not sure if she was on-call tonight or not, so you may have to start at Percy's," Hermione said. "I'm going to change, these clothes are wet."

"Er, right, do you need help or anything?" he asked, pausing awkwardly with his trousers halfway to being on, making her giggle.

"No I think I can make it to the bedroom, thanks," she replied drily. It was a near thing though, as the next contraction grew as she crossed the threshold of her bedroom. Placing her hands on her contracting uterus, eyes closed, Hermione swayed, breathing in slowly and exhaling slowly until the invisible fist clutching her uterus in its grasp released her. Breathing out a small sigh, Hermione, undressed, piling the wet clothing with her bedding, using magic to strip the bed and banish the lot to her laundry room. She pulled on a clean nightdress that felt voluminous, and was on the point of summoning fresh sheets when stopped by the next labour pain. This time, she sat down and gripped the mattress as she tried to breathe slowly through the wave of pain.

George waited respectfully until it passed before speaking from her doorway. "Hermione, I floo'd Percy, and he's roused Penny. She's on her way. Are you certain you wouldn't rather be at St. Mungo's?"

"Quite certain, yes, George. Their maternity ward is very small, meant for really difficult cases. Penny is a fully trained healer, and you know perfectly well that most witches do perfectly well giving birth at home. Could you please help me make the bed?" she said patiently as possible.

George wouldn't allow her to do it, but was perfectly competent to change the sheets. Luna appeared, offering Hermione water or tea, hovering placidly nearby. Fifteen minutes and three or four contractions more passed with little conversation, Hermione bracing herself against the door frame and continuing her slow breathing, though she had to admit that it didn't seem to make any in-roads on the pain. George was pacing nervously in the hallway, Luna smiling serenely, when the healer made her appearance.

Penny looked cheerful, taking in the appearance of her brother-in-law and his girlfriend and the absence of Hermione's husband without comment. "Oh goodness, Hermione, tonight of all nights, eh?" she clucked. "Have you contacted Ronald yet?"

Hermione shook her head, but was prevented responding by another contraction. George frowned as Hermione made a low keening sound. Penelope merely observed, discreetly timing the length of the pain, noting the time of occurrence.

"No," Hermione said a bit breathlessly, when it had passed; they were getting stronger and closer together. "I didn't want to disturb him if it were false labour, and it could be dangerous to contact him before four in the morning."

"Well, let's just have a moment of privacy. You can bring me up to speed as I examine you. You'll be able to come back in shortly, thanks, George," Penelope said firmly, shooing him out and shutting the door behind her. Hermione laid back on the bed as Penny conducted her examination, noting the shortening time-frame between contractions and and growing intensity of them, informing Hermione that she was currently about five centimetres dilated. She inquired about Hermione's pain level, and offered her a short-lived numbing spell, which Hermione declined.

"You seem to be making good progress, but we've got some time ahead of us yet. You said we can contact Ron at four in the morning? Excellent. I'd say there is a good chance he can be here for the birth. I'll just let George and Luna back in, then," Penny said briskly, opening the door.

George was there immediately, hovering anxiously and awkwardly by the bed as Hermione shifted to sit up more comfortably. "Hermione, you doing all right there?"

"It's not the most comfortable experience I've ever had," she said, a glimmer of humour in her eyes, "but well enough, all considered. I'm sorry to have woken you and be keeping you up."

George snorted. "It's fine. Is there anything I can do that might be more useful than pacing the floor?"

Hermione hesitated a bit, but as she could feel the next wave of pain gathering, she reached out for his hand, and squeezed it as she breathed through the contraction. "Just that for now," she gasped out as the pain faded. "Merlin, that hurts."

George looked concerned until she opened her eyes again. "You, uh, going to be all right there?"

Hermione chuckled a bit. "Yes, I expect so. No need to look like a scared rabbit, Georgie. Your mum went through this six times with minimal ill effects, or so I'm told."

"Have you contacted Ron?" George asked. "Not that I don't adore you, Granger, but I rather think your husband a better substitute in this particular situation. And just about only this situation, for the record."

"Though this wouldn't be possible without your assistance in the beginning?" Hermione teased gently.

George's cheeks and ear flushed suddenly, even as he laughed. "Best not say that too loudly, or people will get entirely the wrong idea. Great Merlin, my mum was right, and I have been a bad influence on you. Mind, it took years longer than she predicted, but still."

"Where is Luna?" Hermione asked, again beginning to shift with the onset of another contraction. George respectfully waited until it passed and Hermione's eyes were opened again before responding.

"She went to get some tea. Didn't want to impose, she said. Will you contact Ron?" he asked more seriously. "I've noticed things don't seem to be slowing down, and Ron would be upset to miss the birth of little Georgette."

Hermione's lips pursed, and she frowned. "What he's doing shouldn't be interrupted if it can be helped. Even our secure methods of communication could come at an inopportune time. They'll break at four o'clock to check in and I'll contact him then. It's only two more hours. He should be able to break away then. I expect we'll have plenty of time."

-o0o-

Two hours seemed to crawl by, broken into small chunks of contractions lasting longer than a minute, with only two or three minutes between for resting. Hermione felt restless and confined sitting on the bed, and had taken to wandering throughout the cottage, George ever present at her side, holding her hands or supporting her as she stopped and leaned on him or squeezed him through each contraction. There was no pretense of slow breathing now, Hermione moaned through each pain, rocking or swaying, all under Penelope's watchful observance. Luna glided quietly through, making soothing noises, rubbing at Hermione's back during the contractions, helping George support her when necessary.

Four o'clock chimed and Hermione shakily drew out her wand, conjuring her Patronus and whispering a short message, before sitting on the edge of couch. "There," she said tiredly. "If he can get away at all, he will be here in the hour. Merlin, I want him to get here. This feels as if it's getting faster."

"It is Hermione. I ought to check you again," Penelope said quietly.

Hermione grimaced, but consented to return to her bed, where Penny pronounced her nearing transition at seven centimeters dilation, and suggested she consider a shower or bath to help manage the pain. Hermione declined, however.

"It just doesn't feel right," she said before being interrupted by another blasted contraction. She panted through it, moaning at the peak of the contraction. When she next spoke, she sounded fretful. "Penny, I'm just getting so tired. I haven't slept much, and this is just so exhausting."

"I know, Hermione, dear," Penny said soothingly. "It's hard work, and it is tiring. You know I can do a numbing spell at any point before you begin pushing. It might help you sleep, even."

"I don't know," Hermione said fretfully. "It's not even that it hurts. It's just that I feel as if I've been up for hours and hours without rest."

"Well, you're simply at a point where rest will be hard to come by, but it's up to you, of course. You've done really well so far, and you can do this, Hermione," Penny said encouragingly.

"I just want to keep walking," she finally said. "I can't sit here, I start to worry over Ron. Right, let's try that, then," Hermione said with some determination, though progress was slowed by another contraction that left her grimacing. With Penny's help, she slowly made her way out to the lounge and into the kitchen, where Luna was sitting at the table, a cup of tea before her.

"There is more tea ready, if you'd like some," she said in her ethereal voice. "I'd be happy to make something else. I'm quite good at cooking, but rather inexperienced with births, I'm afraid."

"You've been wonderful," Hermione said honestly. "Where is George?"

"Loo, back in a minute," Luna replied calmly. "Can I get you anything?"

"No, not hungry just at present," Hermione said as another strong contraction began. She doubled over, clutching at the table, and whimpered.

"Luna," Penny said quietly, "she'll probably be ravenous once the baby's arrived. Do you think you could make a casserole or something that can easily be kept warm?"

"Yes, of course. It's too bad I haven't got any plimpies here, though. Daddy always said they were especially beneficial for new mothers," Luna commented idly as she began drifting towards the charmed ice box to assess her options.

"Hermione, how are you doing?" came George's quiet voice from behind her.

"Miserable, actually," she said with a tight half-smile. "I sent a message awhile ago."

"Do you want to keep walking?" George offered his arm.

"Could we go into the garden? I'm feeling a bit tired of walking about the house," Hermione said.

"Penelope? Is that safe?" George asked cautiously.

Penny laughed lightly. "Of course, if that is what she would like to do. I'll be right behind you."

So George helped Hermione out to the garden, and they slowly walked up and down the worn path, stopping more and more frequently, so Hermione could lean against George as she was overswept by a wave of pain dragging at her, pulling at her. She did her best not to cry out loudly, but it was growing increasingly harder as the contractions seemed to draw ever closer, following hard on one another. Time passed, very slowly, measured only by where Hermione was in a grip of a contraction. She did her best to remain calm, to stay collected, but the more time that passed without a message from Ron, without the tell-tale crack of apparition or flaming of the Floo, the more worried she began to grow.

After a particularly long and painful contraction that left Hermione fighting back tears, she clung to George even after it had passed, gripping his soft shirt and said in a trembling, fretful voice, "Where is he, George? I want Ron. I want him here."

"I know, love," George said soothingly, rubbing her back comfortingly. "I know you do. He'll be here soon, I'm sure."

"He is supposed to be here, George," she said, beginning to cry. "I want Ron here. Not you."

"I know, I'm sorry," George said, feeling a bit helpless, and then Penny was there, an arm around Hermione's shoulders.

"C'mon Hermione, I think it's time we go back in and check you again."

"I don't want to!" she cried. "I want to wait here, Ron will be here soon."

"Yes, I know, but we need to see how far you've come, because I think you are getting closer," she said in a calm but firm voice. Turning slightly to George, she added in a low voice, "Women always get a bit testy as they get closer to the end."

Firmly, she turned Hermione towards the house and guided her back inside. Three contractions passed before they made it to her room. Under Penny's instruction, Hermione allowed herself to be checked again, and was horrified to hear Penny announce that she was definitely nine centimetres.

"No, I can't be. Penny, I can't. Ron's not here. I won't do this without him," she said frantically.

"It's been about an hour and a half since you sent your message," Penny said practically. It's very likely that he's he on his way and will be here any moment. I'd slow things down a bit if I could, but I can't, Hermione. You're still at a minus one station, so we've got a ways to go before baby is in good position to start pushing, and you're not even fully dilated yet."

"Where is he?" Hermione fretted. "I'm so tired."

George knocked on the bedroom door, and called out, "Is there anything you need? Anything I can do?"

"Do you want George to try contacting someone?"

"There is no one to contact right now," Hermione said, biting her lip. "Gods, this hurts, Penny."

"I know, I'm sorry. I can still give you a mild numbing spell that would help."

"No," Hermione said, shaking her head. "I don't want that. I just want Ron."

"Ladies?" George called out again.

"Best let him in," Hermione said wearily, and Penny opened the door.

"Nothing particular needed. We're getting much closer, though still some time left," Penny said, the strain and worry beginning to show in the frown she couldn't quite hide. "D'you mind sitting with her for a bit while I use the loo and get a few things ready to go?"

"Course not, if Hermione doesn't mind," George said heartily.

"Fine by me," Hermione said, laying on her side, curling up around her belly, and holding it as another contraction built. "Tell me he'll be ok, George, tell me he's all right."

"He's fine, love, just a bit out of touch. He'll be here any moment, I'm sure," George said soothingly. Hermione's only response was to moan.

"I feel like I'm going to vomit. Why is it so hot in here?" Hermione said suddenly.

"Can I get you cool cloth?" George asked uncertainly? "A cooling charm?"

"Yes, please," Hermione said shortly, trying to breathe through the pain and nausea, nearly panting.

George quickly performed a charm, and retrieved a wash-cloth and made it cool and laid it on the back of her neck, and rubbed her shoulders lightly.

"Thank you," she said, quiet and subdued.

"Hanging in?" he asked quietly. "You're doing brilliantly."

"I want Ron," she said, a tear leaking down her cheek.

At that moment, there was a crashing sound in the kitchen, and they could hear frantic footsteps thundering through the cottage.

"Hermione? Hermione!" Ron called in a frantic voice.

"Ron? Bedroom!" she yelled back, hope and relief lighting her face.

"Are you all right? Is the baby here? I haven't missed it, have I?" he asked, skidding into the room.

"Oh, Merlin, Ron, you stink," George said, less than tactfully.

Indeed, Ron was absolutely filthy, hair plastered to his head with what looked like mud, robes soaked through, a cut still open on his face, scratches all over his hands, and looking completely terrified. He tried to catch his breath as Hermione moaned through another contraction.

"Ronald, goodness, what an entrance," Penelope said, startled, her arms filled with linens and other sorts of soft items she'd retrieved in preparation for birth. "Right, as you see, labour still in progress, though we're nearing the end. You need to shower, now, and then I'll heal those cuts and scrapes. You are not allowed near Hermione until that happens."

"You're all right?" Hermione asked anxiously.

"Yes, I'm sorry it took so long. There was -" Ron began.

"Shower, now!" Penny snapped. "Whatever the hell you were dragged through cannot be sanitary. Go!"

Ron went, without further argument. Penny began setting up her armful of things, which George saw included tiny clothes and nappies and a yellow blanket, and it really hit him that this child would be born soon. This tiny being that would not have been conceived without his intervention. His vision grew swimmy before he blinked away the sudden tears.

"Right, Hermione, since Ron is about, it's probably best that Luna and I -" he started to say.

"No, you can't leave!" Hermione said, and she sounded equally panicked as she had when Ron was missing in action.

"We're just underfoot. We'll be out of the way and you can floo once she's here and you've had a chance to rest," he said reasonably.

"No, you can't, George," she said, and when Penelope popped out of the room to retrieve her medical bag from the kitchen so she could tend Ron's wounds, Hermione said in a quick, low voice, "George, you've been here from the beginning. You can't leave now, or something will go wrong, I know it. Please, George, please."

"Right, ok, I'll stay. But when you start pushing, I'm headed to the kitchen, because there is no way I'm letting that image enter my head. There aren't enough galleons in Gringott's to induce me to watch the birth, Hermione," he said.

Hermione smiled. "Thank you. You can call your mum when she's born."

Ron joined them then, clean and fresh, and sat on the bed gingerly beside his wife. "You all right?"

"Yes. This isn't really much fun," Hermione said, a tender look on her face, which changed to a grimace as she was gripped by another contraction.

"Hermione?" Ron asked with concern, holding her hand, brushing her hair. After thirty second or so, he seemed to be more concerned. "Where's Penny? Is it normal for it to on this long?"

"Yeah, they've been about ninety second or so for awhile now. She's mostly been walking about, though she wasn't feeling well just before you got in. Coming really close together at this point," George volunteered from the door.

"It's ok, Ron, really," Hermione said, breathing a sigh of relief. "I'm just so glad you are here. I was so afraid you wouldn't make it, that something was wrong."

"I know. Bugger all, it was a complete cock-up tonight. We were able to track down and disrupt the ritual, but that bloody idiot Matherson sneezed at the wrong moment, and it went haywire. I ended up chasing this bloke down a bloody sewer and then he apparated to Knockturn Alley, but I had a tracking charm on him."

"Oi, Ron, turn this way. I'm going to heal that," Penny said. She cast a general antiseptic charm and then with a muttered charm, the cut was closed up and well on its way to healing with only a faint scar. She did a similar process with his hands and then handed him a frothy blue potion. "Drink it all. Terribly vile, I'm afraid, but very potent. I want to make certain you haven't contracted anything that would keep you away from the baby."

"Right," Ron said, gulping it as quickly as he could. "Ugh, Penelope, that is worse than cooked socks and maggots."

"Here, Ron," George said, pulling a toffee out of his trousers pocket, and tossing it to him.

"Er, no thanks," Ron said, holding the sweet gingerly.

"For Merlin's sake, Ron," George said with some real irritation. "I'm not that big a prat and I'm not about to do that when your wife is going to give birth shortly. It's a normal Buttersworth toffee."

"George isn't so stupid as that," Hermione agreed, still fervently holding onto her husband's hand.

"Right. Thanks, mate." Ron popped it into his mouth and looked relieved when nothing happened. "So, catch me up on here. When did labour start?"

"George, you tell him," Hermione said in a strained voice, rocking a bit as the contraction built.

"Right, she was apparently having contractions all evening. Kept saying she wasn't really comfortable, kept shifting and moving around. I didn't realize it, of course, but Luna did. She fell asleep while Luna was reading aloud and came and woke me up about two o'clock saying her water had broken."

"I was dreaming that I was swimming in the ocean," Hermione grunted out. "Oh, Merlin, Penny, how much longer?"

"Not terribly much, I think. I could check you again, but even if you're dilated, you'll need to labour down a bit before you start pushing. Baby is still fairly high."

"That's my cue, then!" George said cheerfully. Luna and I will be in the kitchen. Shout if you need anything."

George left hurriedly, and gratefully accepted the tea that Luna had prepared for him and the reassuring calm her presence provided him. In the bedroom, Ron watched with undisguised concern as Hermione was checked and pronounced nearly complete. Penny said she just needed to give it a bit longer, let her body move the baby down, and Hermione nodded. She felt calm now that Ron was here, reassured that things were progressing as they ought.

And they continued to proceed apace. Ron quickly adapted to the rhythm of Hermione's contractions, found ways to try to support her, to ease the pain or help her through the contractions. They could physically see the baby moving down, could watch Hermione's stomach changing shape. Penny laid out the last of her supplies and helped guide Hermione into pushing with her contractions. It was harder than she expected, but it was also such a relief. It took a couple of tries for Hermione to find a position that felt comfortable and seemed to help, and Ron supported her as she squatted on the floor, straining and bearing down with the effort to get their daughter out. Penny gave her low encouragements, telling her about the progress she was making, though the burning sensation told Hermione more clearly than any words.

From the kitchen, Luna and George heard Hermione's moans and they heard a guttural, primal cry from her, followed moments later by the thin, thready cry of a newborn infant.

Hermione closed her eyes in relief as she listened to her daughter cry as Penny quickly examined her and tied off the umbilical cord. It didn't feel real yet, that this was her baby. She rested against Ron, as he kept up a litany of description.

"Merlin, Hermione, she's beautiful. Look how long she is, those tiny fingers. And her hair! She's got red hair, Hermione. Merlin, I'm so bloody proud of you, you are amazing. Look at her, love."

"Perfectly healthy, Mummy," Penny crowed. Here, let's get her up on your chest, just like that." Penny placed the crying infant on her mother, and Hermione felt as if this moment were poised on the edge of a dream. She was afraid to move, lest she wake to disappointment, but then Penny was draping a blanket over both of them and the baby had stopped crying, resting against the familiar sound of Hermione's heartbeat, looking around with wide, bright eyes.

"Oh, Ron," she whispered. "She's here. She's alive."

"She is," he replied, his voice thick.

"She's ours, Ron," Hermione said, tracing her finger down her daughter's soft cheek, and automatically, her cheek turned in that direction and she seemed to be working out how to form her mouth to suck.

"Just a moment, Hermione, let me deliver the placenta and then we'll try to get her feeding, all right?" Penny said, but Hermione was too busy marvelling in the perfection of her daughter's tiny hands to notice or care much what Penny was doing. "Right then. Ready for a go? Are you comfortable enough? We can move you to the bed, if you'd rather."

"Yes, please," Hermione said.

"Ok, just hand the baby over to Ron, carefully. Good, Ron, just support her head, perfect. Just keep the blanket on for now, I've got a warming charm on her." Penny gently helped Hermione to stand, and get seated on the bed where she'd set up disposable padding in preparation for birth. She situated her with pillows to assist her into the right position and then carefully transferred the baby to Hermione, who opened the top of her nightgown. Penelope carefully guided her through the mechanics of latching the baby onto her nipple and soon she was nursing successfully, in complete awe that this tiny baby at her breast was her own child. It seemed unbelievable.

"Very good, Hermione, I think you and she are naturals," Penny said proudly. "Now then. When she's done, we need to get her bathed and dressed and you will feel better for a shower as well. And some food, and then you can rest."

"I am a bit hungry," Hermione admitted. Her daughter seemed to be sated, no longer suckling, her eyes closing again as if all of this were just too much, really. Hermione couldn't help crooning, "Sweet girl, you are so tired, aren't you? Well being born is a tiring thing. Yes, darling, it's quite a transition. Look at your beautiful face. You are so amazing."

"Right, ok. We're going to hand baby to Dad, and I'm going to help you into the shower. And while you are in there, I'm going to show Ron how to bathe her, and we'll get her all dressed up and ready for visitors," Penny ordered.

The shower felt good. Hermione was sore, and unbelievably swollen, and it felt quite odd to feel her suddenly flabby, empty stomach. She wanted very much to simply be out with her baby. Even the sound of her whimpering during her short bath was difficult for Hermione to hear. She was exhausted, and needed Penny's help to climb out of the shower and get dressed. No sooner had she been helped back into bed than she reached for her baby.

Ron had bathed her, and proudly explained how he'd put her in a nappy by himself and dressed her and everything, leaving Hermione to smile, and adjust the yellow blanket to be more secure. Baby girl was fast asleep, and Hermione could not take her eyes off her. She was simply the most gorgeous infant that had ever existed, so far as Hermione or Ron could tell.

A soft knock sounded at the bedroom door, and after a questioning eyebrow from Penny was answered with a shrug from the new parents, she opened the door. George and Luna were standing uncertainly, trays of food and a pot of tea before them.

"Oh, bless you, you lovely people," Hermione said with a large smile. "Just what I needed. Come in and see her."

"A girl?" Luna asked softly, setting the tray down next to Hermione on the bed, while George passed his off to his younger brother. Both Luna and George came over to examine the sleeping newborn. "She's beautiful, Hermione. Congratulations. What is her name?"

Ron cleared his throat and said, "We thought it would be nice if her godfather picked the name. George, what do you think, eh? You willing?"

George couldn't speak for the lump that had formed in his throat. He examined the pink baby in Hermione's arms, looked at her tufts of wispy red hair, bundled in the yellow blanket and could only marvel at the perfection before him. If he dashed tears quickly away from his eyes, no one commented.

"Well, George? Don't leave us in suspense, then," Hermione prompted him in a soft voice, her face filled with fierce joy whenever her gaze lighted on her daughter.

With some difficulty, he cleared his throat and said, "Rose. Rose Elizabeth Weasley."

"Beautiful," Penelope murmured.

"It suits her well," Luna said, her head cocked to one side. "Much better than Agapanthus, George. If no one minds, I think I'm going to take a nap. Please wake me if anyone needs anything." With a kiss to Hermione's cheek and a squeeze of George's hand, Luna floated from the room.

"Hello, Rose," Ron said softly, laying a hand on the crown of her head, causing her to yawn and try to burrow a bit more into her mum's chest.

"Thank you, George," Hermione whispered, reaching out for him, taking his hand. "Rose Elizabeth it is."

"Well, this has been a great deal of excitement, hasn't it? I suggest you two eat, and I'll go floo everyone for you. Tell them you're resting on my orders, and they can all visit after lunch today," Penny said quickly, sensing that these three wanted a moment together. "You do need rest, as you've been up nearly all night. You need to eat as well, Hermione."

George squeezed her hand, and Hermione said, "Would you take her so we can eat, George? Do you mind?"

"Not at all," he said, and he sat at the foot of the bed to take his new niece in his arms and study her. "Don't tell Fleur or Bill, but I think she may be the most beautiful baby I've ever seen."

"You might be a bit biased," Ron said, "I know I am."

"You lot certain you want me to be her godfather? I mean, you know, Hermione, I'm going to give her loads of products and probably a broom far too fast for her, and teach her all sorts of disreputable things," he warned.

"George, without you, she wouldn't exist," Hermione said simply. "I'm sure we will fight any number of times over things you'll do, but there is no one else it could be."

"Well, my little Rose, d'you think we'll get on, then? It appears you will be stuck with me. But you may just be the greatest thing I've ever done, eh?" The baby shifted, opened her eyes and blinked, and managed to get a tiny fist free. George felt his heart contract when that fist wrapped round his finger.

"Rose Elizabeth is really lovely. How'd you come up with that, George?" Ron asked, setting his now empty tray aside.

A look of pure mischief passed over George's face. "Well, I couldn't let you forget how this all started, now could I?"

"You named her after that dreadful cottage? Oh, George!" Hermione said, with a mix of horror and uncontrolled amusement. Ron just groaned and looked sorry he asked.

"Of course, that will be our secret, won't it Rosie?" George asked, nuzzling the baby's forehead. "When everyone else asks, I will tell them that she looked like a just blooming rose, all fresh and new."

Hermione harrumphed. "You'd better. Here, let me have her, I think she's getting hungry, maybe."

"Of course. I'll just give you some privacy, then, and join Luna." He handed Rose to her mum and stood up, stretching, and paused by the door. "Well done, y'know, Hermione."

"Thank you, George," she whispered, "for everything." He smiled, a big, full grin and then was gone, leaving the small family alone together for the first time.

Ron moved back to the bed, as Hermione opened her nursing bra and brought the baby to her breast again. He watched without comment as the baby latched on and nursed for a few minutes, before growing tired and falling asleep again.

"You are both so beautiful," he said quietly. "I'm so proud of you, darling."

"I still can't quite believe she's here, and she's real and alive and ours," Hermione whispered.

"She is, though," Ron said, snuggling up to his wife, resting his hand on Rose's back, feeling the rise and fall of her chest. "She's here, and this is just the beginning of so many things. All of those things we've dreamed of, and hoped for so long. It's all happening, Hermione."

Hermione turned her head to kiss Ron's lips softly, and felt her daughter snuggle further into her . "I do hope so."

-o0o-

A/N: There it is, the end of this little story. Many thanks to those of you who stuck along for the ride. As I mentioned earlier, I began this story when I myself was having trouble conceiving in the years following my son's death. My daughter was born healthy and well at 39 weeks gestation in May 2012. Life since then has been filled with joy and tumult and frustration and love - much I expect for Hermione and Ron going forward. This has been a very healing piece to write, and I hope the readers enjoyed it as much as I have. Cheers, all.